Defining food waste isn’t as simple as one might first think. There are important distinctions to be made between food losses and food waste, between avoidable and unavoidable food waste, and between infrastructural and behavioural drivers of food waste for starters.
Somewhere in the region of one-third of all food produced globally is wasted. At the farm level, we throw away perfectly edible produce because it doesn’t match the strict aesthetic standards imposed by the food system. At the other end of the chain, almost 50% of total food waste in the UK comes from our homes. 
Growing or buying more food than we need and throwing it away is damaging and unfair and it’s usually completely avoidable. There are huge environmental impacts from wasted food, particularly if it ends up in landfill.
Wasting nutrition and calories by overeating is another form of food waste. As the obesity epidemic sweeping the globe reveals, it is highly damaging to human health.
And (as Philip Lymbery highlighted in our ‘Meat Matters’ Food Talk in 2015) the inefficiencies of our livestock systems are also wasteful. We use a significant proportion of the crops we grow to feed animals. Shouldn’t we use the land and its resources more effectively by growing more food directly for human consumption?
There is consensus amongst all key players of the need to tackle food waste – and indeed there have been some excellent practical initiatives that have helped to reduce household food waste (in particular) in recent years.
I think it is also important to think about food waste in ethical terms. For me, it’s a deeply ethical issue because it symbolises much of the injustice and environmental destruction widespread in western society and because there is contention around the best ways to tackle it. There’s also the fundamental injustice of so much food being thrown away while so many people can’t afford to eat. Every piece of food carries within it the blood, sweat, tears and natural resources that have gone into making it: the embedded energy, carbon, water, labour and land-use.
Food waste is undoubtedly a hugely important issue – and one that is (at last) starting to get close to the attention it merits in the UK. That is in no small part due to the efforts of a growing cohort of advocates in the UK (and beyond). This includes the likes of Tristram Stuart et al at Feedback Global, WRAP (Love Food Hate Waste), Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and, surprising to some, the UK’s Institution of Mechanical Engineers (who came at it initially from the wasted resources and unnecessary emissions perspective).
How do we solve food waste? Certainly not by conflating the problem with food poverty. Sure, there is an important role for redistributing surplus food to people in need in the short-term, but ultimately we must tackle the fundamental causes of food waste and the root causes of poverty separately, not use one problem to bluntly try and fix another.
Do we waste more than previous generations? How do we compare with other countries? How can we tackle the root causes of food waste? We will explore these and other questions with our expert speakers at our next Food Talks event* – do join us!
*The next event in our Food Talks series – held jointly with Impact Hub Kings Cross, Organico and Think.Eat.Drink.- is on food waste, entitled ‘Waste not want not’ and takes place from 6.30-9pm on 10th March 2016 in King’s Cross, London. For more details, including a link to be able to register, go here